A Longitudinal Study of the Effects of Child-Reported Maternal Warmth on Cortisol Stress Response 15 Years After Parental Divorce

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Abstract

Objectives

The experience of parental divorce during childhood is associated with an increased risk of behavioral and physical health problems. Alterations in adrenocortical activity may be a mechanism in this relation. Parent-child relationships have been linked to cortisol regulation in children exposed to adversity, but prospective research is lacking. We examined maternal warmth in adolescence as a predictor of young adults' cortisol stress response 15 years after parental divorce.

Methods

Participants included 240 youth from recently divorced families. Mother and child reports of maternal warmth were assessed at 6 time points across childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Offspring salivary cortisol was measured in young adulthood before and after a social stress task. Structural equation modeling was used to predict cortisol response from maternal warmth across early and late adolescence.

Results

Higher child-reported maternal warmth in early adolescence predicted higher child-reported maternal warmth in late adolescence (standardized regression = 0.45, standard error = 0.065, p < .01), which predicted lower cortisol response to a challenging interpersonal task in young adulthood (standardized regression = −0.20, standard error = 0.094, p = .031). Neither mother-reported warmth in early adolescence nor late adolescence was significantly related to offspring cortisol response in young adulthood.

Conclusions

Results suggest that for children from divorced families, a warm mother-child relationship after divorce and across development, as perceived by the child, may promote efficient biological regulation later in life.

Conclusions

Trial Registration: ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT01407120.

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